As Obama administration officials look beyond the planned drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, one path dominates their thinking about how to finally exit the war — a negotiated deal with the Taliban.
After months of quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, officials last week began claiming progress in the effort to begin talks.
"Only now are we beginning to see the kind of outreach that evidences a willingness to discuss the future," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a Senate committee on Thursday.
Another senior U.S. official said that increased U.S. military pressure on the Taliban had made the militants willing to talk. In addition, discussions with the Afghan government and allies had helped forge a common position on negotiations and created "openings that didn't exist 18 months ago," the official said.
In Kabul, too, sources with ties to the Taliban confirmed that talks were underway.
"Negotiations have begun, and the Taliban have shown interest," said Waheed Mujda, who was a government official during the Taliban regime and maintains contact with Taliban leaders. "In the past, the Taliban has insisted that unless the United States leaves Afghanistan, it will never come to the negotiating table. But now it seems that problem has been solved, and that important condition has been set aside."
U.S. officials met three times this spring with Mohammed Tayeb Agha, an aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, and have pushed to take Taliban leaders off a United Nations blacklist, a move that would make it easier for them to travel abroad.
Even so, U.S. officials remain cautious about the effort. President Obama mentioned the talks Wednesday in his East Room address from the White House on the Afghanistan drawdown, but notably made no promises.
The growing public focus on a negotiated solution marks a shift. As recently as January 2010, U.S. officials at an international conference on the war were silent on the idea of negotiating with Taliban leaders, though they did call for efforts to rehabilitate lower-level fighters back into Afghan society.
But as U.S. public support for the war has ebbed, the drive to negotiate has become more urgent.
Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, spends almost all his time trying to negotiate an end to the war, officials say. By contrast, that effort was only one of the missions of his predecessor, the late Richard C. Holbrooke.
The administration's eagerness is clear in the way it has pushed ahead with preliminary talks without the Afghan government's participation, even though the Obama administration's official line is that any talks must be Afghan-led.
And administration officials have shown increasing flexibility in their demands. Clinton announced in February that the United States was willing to hold talks with the Taliban even without an initial agreement to the three key U.S. conditions for any deal: The militants must renounce violence, end any alliance with Al Qaeda and agree to respect the Afghan Constitution.
U.S. officials also have been actively trying to draw neighboring nations into the talks, believing that only a broadly accepted deal will help extinguish regional tensions.
The administration has convened a "core group," including Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States, to try to reach agreement on the issues. It has also sought to bring others, including India, China, Russia, Iran and Central Asian nations, into the discussions, Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Diplomats have "made progress" with all of them, even Iran, she said.
Yet while the administration was boasting that U.S. military pressure was drawing militants to the negotiating table, some experts in Washington and Kabul were arguing that Obama's drawdown plans could convince the Taliban that the military pressure soon will be easing.
The drawdown announcement "will certainly affect the way the Taliban looks at the need for reconciliation," said Robert Zarate, analyst with the Foreign Policy Initiative research group in Washington.
Afghan analyst Haroon Mir said the drawdown could embolden insurgents and diminish their interest in talks.
"The objective for the Taliban is to take control of the south," Mir said. "Much depends on what happens between now and the end of this year. If the Taliban move back into districts in Kandahar and Helmand, they will regain momentum that, up until now, everyone has been saying has been broken."
A wild card is Pakistan, which has built ties to militant groups in the past.
Afghan Taliban militants based in Pakistan's tribal border areas routinely cross into Afghanistan to carry out attacks on NATO and Afghan forces. As long as Pakistan gives militants ample space in these rugged areas, Washington's strategy of ramping up military pressure to get insurgents to negotiate won't work, Afghan analysts say.
"Until we put pressure on the sources of political support for the Taliban, it will be difficult to bring them to the table," said Sanjar Sohail, a political analyst and Afghan newspaper publisher. "Maybe we can get mid-level Taliban to talk about peace, but I don't think the top Taliban leadership will come to the talks if they continue to get support from Pakistan."
It will probably be difficult, too, to win support from various Afghan constituencies, said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network in Kabul, the capital.
Although the Afghan government talks a lot about a deal, "are they really ready to share power and access to resources?" Ruttig said.
Likewise, powerful former mujahedin warlords may fear that they could be punished for human rights abuses, and many ordinary Afghans might resist a deal with the Taliban, fearing that the fundamentalist group could again take away their rights and freedoms, he said.
So the deal that the administration hungers for may not arrive soon enough to satisfy its desire for a quick resolution to the conflict.
Andrew Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace said the key "is to have different groups, bit by bit, take their seat in a legitimate peace process."